Spoiler alert: It’s organ donation. One deceased donor can save up to eight lives through organ donation and can save (and enhance) more than a hundred lives through the lifesaving and healing gift of tissue donation, according to the American Transplant Foundation. Now you know and can go back to browsing the web—but if you are at least a bit curious (and we think you are; you clicked on this story after all) read on to discover to read some fascinating facts that will make you smarter and—perhaps—help you become a hero. We spoke to some of the country’s most impressive people to make sure our story’s not a clickbait.
Why is there a big need for new organs?
Close your eyes and imagine you are a car. What car would you be? Let’s say you are a Tesla, because they’re cool. Now imagine that sometimes Teslas—like all cars—have problems. Maybe it just needs a tune-up, but every now and then even Teslas need a part exchanged. And what if all the parts available were from 1990 Chevys—and most of them not necessarily in mint condition?
That’s the trouble with organ donations today. We are getting older: The number of Americans ages 65 and older will more than double over the next 40 years, reaching 80 million in 2040, according to The Urban Institute. We are getting sicker: Six in ten adults in the USA have a chronic disease, according to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. We are getting obese: 93.3 million US adults (39.8%) are affected according to CDC.
As a result, the donor pool is not typically healthy, young people with perfect organs. “The average organ donor is the average American in their 50s and 60s and many have diabetes or hypertension so their organs may have some collateral damage from those diseases they have had,” says Danielle Haakinson, MD, a Yale Medicine transplant surgeon.
In other words, if—God forbid—your Tesla needs a new engine, you might get one from an oversized hippie VW microbus.
I’m alive. Will I die if I donate an organ?
Many living people have donated their kidneys successfully. “Whether it’s a distant family member, friend or complete stranger you want to help, you can donate a kidney through certain transplant centers,” says the Mayo Clinic. “If you decide to become a living donor, you will undergo extensive questioning to ensure that you are aware of the risks and that your decision to donate isn’t based on financial gain. You will also undergo testing to determine if your kidneys are in good shape and whether you can live a healthy life with just one kidney.”
If I’m dead, and they take my organs, won’t I look gross at my funeral?
“Organ and tissue donation doesn’t interfere with having an open-casket funeral,” observes the May Clinic. “The donor’s body is clothed for burial and treated with care and respect, so there are no visible signs of organ or tissue donation.”
What organs are needed?
“The number of organs transplanted has certainly been improving year by year, and 2019 marked the greatest number of transplants performed in the country,” says David Mulligan, MD, chief of transplant surgery at Yale Medicine and president of the United Network of Organ Sharing (UNOS).
“Currently, more than 112,000 patients are on the waitlist for an organ transplant, the majority of those waiting for a kidney. Luckily there is dialysis to keep these patients alive until a kidney becomes available, but only a small fraction of those waiting each year will have the opportunity for transplant,” says Haakinson. “Other solid organs may not have well-established therapies to keep patients alive while waiting for their opportunity for transplant. So there is a dire need for all solid organs in the effort to save lives.”
“Even on our kidney transplant side, up to 10% of people per year are dying on the waitlist, and so the ability to increase the organ pool would expand the numbers of people that are able to be transplanted,” Haakinson says. “About 20 people every day are dying on the waitlist, and so, if any organs are currently being discarded could be rehabilitated and made acceptable for use for transplant, we could rescue those patients. There are thousands of organs being thrown away every year. They’re deemed to be not suitable quality for transplant.”
What do they look for, in an organ?
“Trying to tease out what organs from which people have so much damage they’re not usable for transplant is a difficult assessment to make, and we have a very finite period of time to make that assessment,” says Haakinson. “Much of it is based on their history, the donor’s history, but then we also use things like imaging of the donor or we look at biopsies of the organs under the microscope to see their quality, but this decision is made in a very rapid fashion at the time of organ recovery because we have, for kidneys, up to about a day, day and a half, to get the kidneys into a recipient. For the liver, we only have six to maybe 10 hours at most, and so it’s just a very truncated period of time to carry out all this organ assessment as well as performing the transplant.”
What are living donor communities?
“One of the wonderful things that has emerged over the last year is that people who can’t donate to the intended recipient are willing to participate in exchanges or swaps,” says Sanjay Kulkarni, MD, a Yale Medicine transplant surgeon and the medical director, Center for Living Donors. “And the way that works is, we put that compatible pair into the same computer system as all incompatible pairs and the computer systems let us know if there’s a match. So, on the same day, all the donors donate, but the kidneys get exchanged and rearranged in a way that more and more people get transplanted.”
Learn more about living donor communities here.
How can you easily help?
- Visit Donate Life America to register online.
- Express your wish to become a donor when you receive or renew your driver’s license at the DMV.
- Please remember to share your decision with your family so they understand your wish to be an organ donor. “Let your wishes be known that if something happens to you, you’d like the opportunity to leave that legacy and save others’ lives and that you don’t want to just be buried with your organs so that no one would have had a chance to benefit from them,” says Dr. Mulligan. “Let someone have a chance to have a life-saving operation.”
- For more information about becoming a living organ donor, click here.
And to live your happiest and healthiest life, don’t miss these 101 Unhealthiest Habits on the Planet.